Proprietors are packaged a little differently these days. The last time a supremely confident self-made millionaire wanted to buy the Daily Mirror, the man in question was a 20-stone egomaniac with plans to turn a respected national newspaper into his personal photo album. You may recall the day in 1984 that Robert Maxwell commandeered a British Airways TriStar jet - and, of course, the front page of his paper - to personally deliver 30 tons of food and medicine to the famine-stricken people of Ethiopia.
This time round, the man looking to purchase the paper - an ultra-private businessman called Marcus Evans - could not be more different. Hitherto almost unheard of among Fleet Street management and journalists, he has spent his business life resolutely ticking the "no publicity" box. Evans refuses to give interviews, there are no newspaper pictures of him and he employs a public relations company with a strict brief to stonewall any inquiries from the press.
Nonetheless, last week it emerged that Evans has put together a bid worth between £550m and £600m for the national titles currently owned by Trinity Mirror - the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People.
Trinity Mirror's public response to Evans's offer was carefully worded. "Mr Evans is welcome to buy the Daily Mirror every day from any newsagent. As for the rest, it appears largely wishful thinking on his part... none of Trinity Mirror's assets are for sale."
Not quite yet, it's true, but the company's chief executive, Sly Bailey, has commissioned NM Rothschild to carry out a strategic review of all Trinity Mirror's assets, and has announced that she is "ruling nothing in or out". Since the departure last May of her chairman Sir Victor Blank, many observers expect the company to offload its national division when Rothschild delivers its findings next month.
Evans - who made an under-reported bid backed by Barclays for the papers in 2004 and has not yet put his current offer formally in writing to Trinity Mirror - should not be automatically discounted as the ultimate purchaser merely on account of his low profile.
So, is Marcus Evans a "secretive" businessman or merely a "private" one?
His company, Marcus Evans, organises conferences across the world. It operates two (rather scrappy-looking) websites, which carry plenty of detail about Evans's core activity: running business seminars. Next week, for example, visitors to Shanghai's Millennium Hongqiao Hotel will get the chance to learn about "implementing practical and innovative OHS strategies to ensure constant safety, decrease downtime, improve compliance and prevent profit loss". Next year, the company will host a conference on the very Mirror-unfriendly topic of "Expeditionary Warfare Asia", with presentations from Nato and the Singapore armed forces.
Yet despite such projects, people within the British conference community know virtually nothing about him. This week, The Independent on Sunday contacted trade bodies, rival conference companies and specialist journalists to seek information on Evans and his company. Not a single person could recall meeting him or dealing with his firm. One PR executive in the conference sector was typical: "This is an industry which is known for its networking and it's quite a small community - everyone knows everyone. But not in this particular case, unfortunately."
Inquiries further afield, however, elicit some details about the wannabe Mirror owner. He is in his early forties, quiet and determined, with large homes in Kingston-upon-Thames and one of London's most expensive areas, The Boltons, in Chelsea.
A very wealthy man, Evans is not looking to make a "vanity" purchase. Unlike other newspaper proprietors, he will not seek invitations to No 10 or Chequers. He is also no Labour supporter. "But he has no interest whatsoever in changing the political stance of the Mirror," I'm told. Why not? Because that would damage the brand and be bad for business.
Evans thinks the titles are not performing to their full potential under their current ownership. Despite some good recent scoops - John Prescott's adultery and Kate Moss's cocaine habit - circulation at the Daily Mirror is falling sharply. Once the nation's best-selling newspaper, it is now outflanked by The Sun and the Daily Mail, selling just 1.6 million copies per day. It has lost a quarter of its readers in five years.
Evans does not believe decline is inevitable. "He is an investor and a businessman and he believes that this asset would be better managed in private hands rather than in public company hands," says a well-placed source. "He thinks it's under-invested, badly managed and if you do the right things with it, you can make more money from it." He does not have any great expectations that any sale will happen soon but he is prepared for a long haul. He is, I'm assured, not thinking of a Richard Desmond-style mass cull of journalists but a substantial reorganisation of backroom operations would be on the cards if he wrested control.
When Evans first approached Trinity Mirror back in 2004, it was with an offer many millions higher than today's. At the time, it was suggested in the business pages that his bid was not taken seriously, though I understand that negotiations went further than was then revealed. The process finally came to a halt when Sir Victor Blank withdrew from talks - though not before details of Evans's offer leaked into the press. There are those who believe that his previous bid - and today's - have been aired to flush out more generous offers. Such cynicism is probably well placed.
It is far from certain whether an unknown quantity like Evans would ever get to own the Mirror titles. For a start, his offer - no doubt an opening gambit - appears on the mean side. It is unlikely that Trinity Mirror will look kindly on Evans's lower valuation of the company. Elsewhere in the market, the Barclay brothers paid £665m in 2004 for the Telegraph, for a paper that is only half as profitable as the Mirror - though the newspaper market has dipped further since then.
If he proved victorious, one thing is sure: the papers offering the least coverage of the new press baron will be his own.Reuse content